Whale fluking
Whale fluking

Stunning whales to spot in the UK and Ireland – that aren’t in the Thames

Whales where they belong.

Luke Rix-Standing
Monday 10 May 2021 15:18

It’s a story that pops up every few years – an unfortunate whale somehow ends up a decent distance down a river, leaving concerned volunteers and conservationists with the unenviable task of herding it back out to sea.

This time a young minke whale took a wrong turn and became stranded near Richmond in London, though a successful rescue has now freed her.

Whale stranded at Richmond Lock and Weir

Fortunately, if you’re very lucky and catch a good day, there are plenty of whales to spot in our surrounding seas that haven’t strayed inexplicably up an urban river…

1. Minke whale

Minke whale

Comparatively small whales with triangular noses and unpredictable personalities, minkes are commonly found all round the UK and Ireland though they’re noticeably more numerous along the northwest shores of Scotland They’re known to approach boats from time to time, but you might not want to get too close. They earn their nickname ‘stinky minkes’ with famously foul-smelling breath.

The Isle of Mull in Scotland is particularly good for minkes, but you can see them as far round the coast as North Yorkshire.

2. Fin Whale

Fin whale

The second largest species of whale, fin whales can grow to a gargantuan 120 tonnes and notch around 20 metres in length. Nicknamed ‘the greyhounds of the sea’, these solitary swimmers cut through the water at a speed that defies their size, sieving up to 2,000 kg of krill per day. They surface semi-regularly in British and Irish waters, generally down the North Atlantic coast.

Fin whales are particularly elusive, but the Outer Hebrides, the south coast of Ireland and Cornwall are probably your best bet.

3. Sperm Whale

The species that starred in Moby Dick, sperm whales shun krill in favour of squid and small fish, which they mash up with teeth that weigh up to a kilo each. Despite Melville’s scaremongering, sperm whales do not harm humans, though one did (probably accidentally) ram and sink a ship in 1820.

All-round impressive specimens, sperm whales possess the world’s largest brains (more than five times the size of a human’s), dive deeper than all but one other whale, and spurt water five metres into the air. They don’t breach very often, but when they do it’s a sight to behold.

Though relatively rare, sperm whales are marginally easier to see around the Outer Hebrides, Shetland, and Orkney.

4. Long-Finned Pilot Whale

Long-finned Pilot Whales

Not as large as the fin whale, as acrobatic as the humpback, nor as friendly as the minke, the long-finned pilot whale is low on unique selling points, but high in both numbers and charm. Pilot whales live and hunt in pods, and were named under the assumption that one individual would lead the rest – the assumed ‘pilot’. We now know that’s not the case, but the title stuck.

Cornwall, Devon, southern Ireland, and western Scotland are all credible spots for seeing long-finned pilot whales.

5. Cuvier’s Beaked Whale

Dolphin goose beaked Cuvier’s whale ultra rare to see

One of the weirder whales to trawl our northern waters, Cuvier’s Beaked Whales are the adrenaline junkies of the whale world. Scratched and scarred from regular set-tos with sharks and squid, they can also dive longer and deeper than any other marine mammal, reaching depths of nearly nearly 3,000 metres and staying submerged for more than three-and-a-half hours.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that they aren’t as coastal as most of their counterparts, preferring deeper waters off the North Atlantic coast.

6. Humpback Whale

When most people think ‘whale’, they jump to either ‘blue’ or ‘humpback’. Shots of these mighty beasts breaching clean out of the ocean have been David Attenborough mainstays for decades – and not just because they’re comparatively easy to film.

Humpback whales are large and happily swim near land, making them relatively easy spots from both boats and headlands. A rare success story for whale conservation, humpback numbers are thought to be increasing around the UK every year. As they’re migratory, your best shot is off the west coast of Scotland during early-autumn and mid-summer.

7. Killer Whale

Otherwise known as orca, sightings of these monochrome creatures are as highly prized as they are uncommon. Technically very large dolphins, killer whales tend to be uninterested in humans despite their nasty nickname, and prey on squid and fish with highly-developed, team-based hunting strategies.

You won’t find orcas in the English Channel, but pods occasionally pop up off Orkney, the Western Isles, and Shetland.